The Short Story Interview: Tochukwu Okafor

Short Story Interview on TSS Publishing

Tochukwu Okafor is a Nigerian writer whose work has appeared in The GuardianLitro Magazine, and is forthcoming in Harvard University’s Transition Magazine. His No Tokens story, “Some Days,” has been nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. He has been nominated twice for the Short Story Day Africa Prize for Short Fiction, with his stories, “Leaving,” appearing in Short Story Day Africa’s anthology, Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa, and “All Our Lives” appearing in the anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa. His Warscapes story, “Colour Lessons,” featured in Columbia JournalThe Cantabrigian, and Volume 1 Brooklyn, has been shortlisted for the Problem House Press Short Story Prize (2016) and nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His Open Road Review story, “Spirit,” featured in Juked, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Southern Pacific Review Short Story Prize. In 2014 he was awarded the Comptroller Charles Edike Prize for Outstanding Essays. He is an alumnus of the 2015 Association of Nigerian Authors Creative Writing Workshop and the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Writing Workshop, and a two-time recipient of the Festus Iyayi Award for Excellence for Prose and Playwriting (2015/2016). Tochukwu Okafor is the 2017 winner of the Short Story Day Africa prize with his story, “All Our Lives”.


Interview by Jennifer Emelife


 

I read your short story, ‘All Our Lives’ and I enjoyed the simplicity of its language. The story indeed encapsulates the act of living and surviving. At the beginning, we are innocent, finding pleasure in the smallest things and then we grow and want more and when more comes, we are sometimes unable to make anything out of it. At the end, we are either successful or have lost ourselves. I’m curious to know what you hoped to achieve by writing the story.

Thank you, Jennifer, for reading my story. When the story first came to me, I had no idea of what it would become in the end. I didn’t set out writing the story, thinking of what I hoped to achieve with it — I only wanted to tell a story! What was more important to me was to tell the story in the manner the voices wanted it to be told.

I love the distinct technique you implored in the narrative. Telling the story from the plural first person perspective from the beginning to the end, like an exploration. And the repetition of ‘We are…We are…’ Was this deliberate? What informed this style?

No, it wasn’t deliberate. (Laughs.) The point-of-view came naturally to me. I heard the voices in my head, clear and distinct. My job was to interpret those voices on the page as well as I could. Every line in the story was a discovery. There were days I sat at my desk, listening to each narrator talk about his experience. It was a turbulent affair in the beginning. I got stuck in the middle, mostly because I had excluded one particular narrator. Everything in the story was unintentional, so you may want to ask the voices in my head why they chose that sort of style to tell the story. (Laughs.)

That’s funny. I’ve always wanted to ask writers how they decide names of characters. In All Our Lives, we see the transition from local names to foreign names reflecting the change in the identity of your characters. You had this sophisticated Igbo names for them and I’d like to know how characterisation works for you. How do you know what name to call a character? Any strategies?

There were names from other tribes, too. I don’t think I have any strategy for characterisation. But I’m deeply attracted to long names, names which most people would ordinarily find amusing. As a Nigerian and an Igbo man, naming holds a special space in our culture. I think it’s very sad when some people don’t embrace the fullness of their names. So it becomes a “cool” thing to shorten your name because it makes you look “modern”.

That’s an interesting way to look at it. You’ve written a couple of short stories and I wonder if you ever find it restraining as a writer in terms of word limit?

No. The short story, as a genre, has its own word limit. I have worked on stories longer than the limits of the short story. Rather than finding it restraining, I find the short story as difficult to write as the novel.

What would you say is what you enjoy most about the short story format?

Its brevity. Its memorability. Its sense of urgency.

And if we are going to connect literature to reality, would you say the lives of the men as described in your story are a result of the deplorable state of things in our society, like bad governance and corruption? Because I do see your story as satirical.

Perhaps, there is that influence of society. Perhaps, too, there is a longing for a different kind of life. These men are overly ambitious. In the beginning of the story, when the narrators were younger, we see that they were comfortable, somehow shielded from the ugly realities of the worlds beyond them. But as they grow, they begin to want more. They migrate, discover that life is not any brighter than it were when they were still in the village. So, there is this interplay of personal ambition and societal politics.

What are some of the ways in which you think things can be different?

One, we must learn that it is never enough to complain or write about how terrible things are. Talk should be complemented with actions. Two, we need to embrace equality. Things will never get better in a world where people are not allowed to be their full selves. We must learn to be accepting of each other irrespective of what social stratum each person occupies. Things will be much different, too, if we let go of social labels and see the world as a unified space.

I do agree with that. All Our Lives won you the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize out of the many entries. As someone who has been in the spotlight before for academic excellence and other literary achievements, I wonder if this win with the exposure it brings, feels any different.

Yes, it does feel different. The Short Story Day Africa prize for Short Fiction is an important prize for African literature. The other day, I was in a conversation with my friend, and I told her that we could as well name the Short Story Day Africa prize as the “Nobel Prize for Short Fiction.” I have been following closely every work the institution has done. I have read all of their anthologies. And I can’t help feeling amazed by the wealth of talents the prize has brought together. What I find exciting and I think should be celebrated is that the organisation is run by mostly women. Of course, one might say, “In this present century, women’s successes are just as normal as men’s. That they shouldn’t be celebrated.” Well, I disagree. Women have been relegated to the background for so many years, I feel it’s important that their outstanding “background” work should be lauded.

And the fact that you’re the first male to be winning the prize since its inception! Can we talk about breaking cycles?

Yes, let’s talk about that, too. (Laughs.) I have always admired and followed the work of every winner of the prize, irrespective of whether the person is male or female. But I feel it’s very remarkable that in the past years, women have been winners of this prize. This is important in a time when women are increasingly judged by their beauty rather than their abilities. So, yay to the previous female winners, and yay to me for being the first male winner.

Congratulations! You’re also a 2018 Kathy Fish Fellow. Want to share what it entails and/or what’s forthcoming from you?

The Kathy Fish Fellowship is an annual fellowship programme run by the staff of SmokeLong Quarterly, a prestigious journal for flash fiction. As a fellow, I participate in reading the slush pile, judging stories for the journal’s annual prize, and contributing flash fiction to the journal during the period of my fellowship. I am presently working on new flash fiction collection for the forthcoming issues of the journal. Later this year, I will also have the privilege of taking an active part in selecting the next fellow.

Flash fiction is becoming increasingly popular. There are some who do not fully appreciate it as an art like they do with short stories and novels. What would you say is the importance or relevance of flash fiction? And don’t you think it’s more like poetry?

I think flash fiction has always been as popular as the short story and the novel. But for many years, it has been looked down on as most people — sadly, most writers — think of it as genre of few words, therefore it’s easy to write and doesn’t hold as much power as other fiction genres. Some flash fiction stories have taken me three or four years to write.  I had wanted to stop writing them because I had felt that no one on this planet would be interested in reading them. In fact, I didn’t know that journals published flash fiction stories (though I find it very suspicious that some major journals and magazines call them “short short stories.”) Flash fiction hold a sense of urgency, of starkness, of strong emotive power. For me, I find it easier to experiment with the flash than the short story and the novel. Poetry straddles a liminal space that intersects all forms of literature. I think poetry and flash fiction share a similar lyrical quality if executed well enough.

You should know that TSS publishes flash fiction too, in case you ever want to send an entry. Also, how do you combine having a full time job with writing? Like, what would your typical writing day be like?

Oh, Jennifer, it’s really crazy, I must confess. I work round the clock. This means little or no time for sleep. I work as a business analyst at a multinational. Because of the terrible Lagos traffic, I leave home by 5:30 am, arrive at my office by 8 am and close by 8 pm. I often get home by 9:30 pm or 10 pm. I spend an hour reading and the next couple of hours writing. So, I only have about 3 to 4 hours of night rest. But my weekends are often freer. I try to write and read as much as I can over the weekends.

So then if there are organisations, books and authors that you’ll acknowledge for enhancing your growth and art as a writer, what would they be and in what ways have they influenced you?

One of such would be the Creative Writing Workshop at the Department of English and Literature, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Benin, Benin City. I was a participant in the workshop for three years. The workshop was where I first openly came out as a “writer.” Writing, for me, had been a private affair in the years before I joined the workshop. The weekly meetings, readings, and literary criticism classes helped me view my writing differently. Short Story Day Africa is another organisation that has boosted my arty confidence. I read all of the things they share on social media. I have participated once in their writing workshop and many times in their online writing prompts. Chinua Achebe is the author who made me write. I discovered him when I was nine. Before I read Achebe, I had been reading lots of American and British children’s books, as they were easy to find and they formed most of my primary school’s curriculum. Today I think I have read and re-read everything Achebe has ever written. Another author who has been of immense support to me is Karen Jennings. Karen is my mentor and my very dear friend. She taught and showed me new ways of editing, of playing with language. I have come to admire all of her writing, and I hope everyone in the world would do the same as she’s a remarkable author. 


Jennifer Chinenye Emelife was born in Northern Nigeria, Sokoto state. She studied Literature in English in Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. She lives in Lagos where she writes, when she isn’t teaching Literacy to kids. She is also rounding up a Post Graduate studies in Education. She believes that the African literary sphere suffers because no one covers its stories. Lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, she has written reportages and interviewed writers, publishers and other literary experts. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and in 2016, she was selected as one of the participants for Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop held in Accra, Ghana.


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